Absolutely. In fact, these writing tips are so elementary (yep, pun intended), they can enrich your entire writing experience.
But they aren’t just for newer writers. Veterans will find them worth reviewing as well.
And they work for all types of writing. Whether you need to produce sales letters, landing pages or articles for content marketing, Sherlock’s principals still apply.
So let’s take a look at how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s consulting detective can help you write more successfully—from the start of your writing process to the finished product.
The Game’s Afoot: the Research Phase
Suppose you’re a copywriter or content marketer. It’s 9 a.m. and you have a meeting with a client today at 3 p.m. You know the person has a project for you and you know what the subject is. What do you do?
Decide to keep an open mind so do nothing but review your prospect questionnaire then stuff it in your attaché case?
Consider using Sherlock Holmes’s approach to solving mysteries.
In The Adventure of the Cardboard Box, he explains to Dr. Watson:
We approached the case, you remember, with an absolutely blank mind, which is always an advantage. We had formed no theories. We were simply there to observe and to draw inferences from our observations.”
This method saves time for at least two reasons, Sherlock notes:
It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data. Insensibly one begins to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts.” -A Scandal in Bohemia
“I had come to an entirely erroneous conclusion, my dear Watson, how dangerous it always is to reason from insufficient data.” -The Adventure of the Speckled Band
In short, it’s best to start with an open mind. You then meet your client and get your information. Because as Sherlock says in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches:
Data! Data! Data!” he cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.”
Of course, you’ll want to add to the material—old promos, product sheets, press releases, brochures, testimonials—your prospect gave you.
So don’t forget to glean valuable viewpoints from online blogs, websites, forums, and social media platforms.
Then… what’s that Mr. Holmes?
There is nothing new under the sun. It has all been done before,” the detective observes in Doyle’s first Holmes story, A Study in Scarlet.
Is this hinting that you should “borrow” from other writers? Not exactly.
It’s fine to get ideas from them. You just have to put things in your own words. And getting samples is simple. You probably get articles, sales letters, and other info in your email or postal box daily.
It’s an easy way to get ideas for structuring and writing your material.
Now, let’s discover…
The Scientific Use of Imagination: the Writing Phase
Think comparing writing to detective work (even if fictional) is a bit of a stretch?
Sherlock’s comment from The Reigate Puzzle should change your mind.
It is of the highest importance in the art of detection to be able to recognize, out of a number of facts, which are incidental and which vital. Otherwise your energy and attention must be dissipated instead of being concentrated.”
Sounds like the ideal way to start the actual writing process.
Now which facts are the best? Let’s hear from Sherlock again:
It has long been an axiom of mine that the little things are infinitely the most important.” -A Case of Identity
You know my method. It is founded upon the observation of trifles.” -The Boscombe Valley Mystery
He’s talking about specific details. And, as Kathryn talked about in this article, you need these if you want readers to believe your claims—from your headline to your close or P.S.
In addition, Sherlock’s use of backward reasoning offers a can’t-miss method of writing copy.
In A Study in Scarlett, he says:
In solving a problem…the grand thing is to be able to reason backwards. There are few people…who, if you told them a result, would be able to evolve from their own inner consciousness what the steps were which led up to that result. This power is what I mean when I talk of reasoning backwards….”
Now I’ve heard of this approach before—but I‘ve rarely used it. It does make sense, though. Suppose you’re promoting a pricey product or service.
Most likely, you’ll write your headline, lead, and subheads first. Then follow with what you feel is the best formula. For example, I usually write copy with the Picture, Promise, Proof, Push (4 Ps, as taught by AWAI) template in mind.
But try this. First, perform an in-depth analysis of the components you’ll need to build your case. Then construct your promo from P.S. or close to headline. Result? A much stronger sales argument.
And if someone objects to your claims and proofs?
Again, let Sherlock reply:
One should always look for a possible alternative, and provide against it.” -The Adventure of Black Peter
And do so immediately. The longer doubt remains, the more likely your reader will seek information elsewhere. Also, looking at both sides ups your credibility.
The Final Problem: the Polishing Phase
Before getting into the nitty-gritty of proofreading and copyediting, top writing coaches advise a break of a day or so—if possible.
Even Sherlock did something similar.
“Having gathered these facts, Watson, I smoked several pipes over them.” -The Crooked Man
Then you go to work…
…Read your copy on your monitor for flow and grammar errors. Then check flow again by reading it aloud. Even better, have a pre-teen read it aloud. If you or the pre-teen stumble anywhere, so will your reader.
…Print it out. Sometimes copy reads differently on paper.
…Start at the last word and go through your copy backwards. Now you’re looking for spelling errors, weak verbs, typos and the like.
…Listen to it as a tape recording. This is an ideal ways to catch awkward sentence structure.
…Have several individuals read it as prospects. “Nothing clears up a case so much as stating it to another person,” the detective agrees in A Study in Scarlet.
Does that seem like a lot of work?
Not if you’re aiming for the freelance writing A-leagues.
Observes Sherlock in A Study in Scarlett:
They say that genius is an infinite capacity for taking pains.”
Talking about pains, let’s conclude on that note…
Next time you’re facing one of writing’s biggest challenges—the blank screen—get a clue from Sherlock Holmes.
Solve your mystery by using his writing tips as a template. They’ll not only help get you started, but will make it easier for you to finish your project as well.
About the Author: Dale L. Sims is a freelance self-help copywriter and website content consultant based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Also, from May 2010 to Jan. 2014, he served as marketing coordinator and health consultant for Healthy Design, a supplement and fitness product distributor in Cadillac, Michigan. Connect with him in Google+ and Twitter.